Sounds and Sensitivity

Listening to Cage’s Williams Mix and a derivation
by Asimina Chremos


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Listening is a visceral experience. Sound travels through the air and through our fluids, tissues, and bones, helping us locate ourselves in space and in relationship to activity that surrounds us. As people living in the modern world, we are quite used to sound that comes out of electronic devices and speakers. Given the thousands of years of human evolution, this is a relatively new experience. What does it really do to us when we are surrounded by sounds that were recorded in other places and times? How does the nature of those sounds affect our consciousness, our sense of orientation, and of where and who we are? How does it feel to hear a field recording, versus hearing an electronically-derived sound?

An October 28, 2014 program of contemporary and experimental music presented by Bowerbird at T­­he Rotunda in Philadelphia provoked the above questions. The evening included John Cage’s Williams Mix, a dense composition of recorded sound played through multiple speakers. Created in the very early 1950’s, Williams Mix is widely accepted to be the first known octophonic (that is, eight-channel) electronic music. The work has inspired many recreations and reinterpretations, including the recent project Williams Mix Extended by European sound artists Werner Dafeldecker and Valerio Tricoli, which was also played that night.

Austrian native Dafeldecker took the stage at the Rotunda to introduce both the Cage work, and his and Tricoli’s remake, charmingly referring to the bits of pieced-together audiotape that comprise the original Cage work as “sniplets,” (a very cute English-as-a-second language version of the word “snippet”). Dafeldecker explained how Cage made use of the magnetic tape technology from that time to create a linear collage of sound from short pieces of audiotape attached together end to end. The recorded material represented six categories: city, country, electronic, manually produced, wind, and “small” sounds.(1) Dafeldecker also explained the methods that he and Tricoli used to transcribe Cage’s score from tape to advanced digital audio software, processing and reprocessing sounds.

Sitting in the darkened auditorium, the original Williams Mix emerged through an array of speakers that seemed to be above the heads of the assembled listeners. The slightly scratchy analog sounds were obviously historical. The sensation of listening to the past, things that have happened long ago, had the feeling of a memory scan. Because there were no visuals (other than the red EXIT signs or dim light spilling from the entryway), the mind’s eye was free to conjure images in response to the sound. The work was playful, the collage of disparate sources presenting unexpected juxtapositions: a song; something falling off a shelf; part of a news report. As a listener I felt as if I was a benign being playing with a time-travelling radio, twirling the knob aimlessly to various broadcasts from daily life of a past era, noting with humor and curiosity the aspects of a then-modern world.

Williams Mix Extended, also presented in the dark and without visuals, produced a completely different feel. Sounds reminiscent of those in the multiplex movie theater meant to show off the capabilities of the surround-sound system abutted field recordings of nature, excisions of acoustic music, and overheard phrases of speech. The sudden stopping and starting of sounds that was fun and surprising in the Cage work became stressful in the Dafeldecker-Tricoli interpretation.

Listening to the Cage piece, it felt to me as if the room was turned into a dreamlike series of alternative spaces and times. Sitting in a chair my body felt comfortable and alive, my mind active and curious. In contrast, the Dafeldecker-Tricoli interpretation had an alarming presence. My perception was that the room shifted size and shape in a threatening manner. The intrusion of science-fiction-style, videogame-like electronic roars of nonexistent war machines set my nervous system on high alert.

Carolyn Brown, a dancer with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company who performed to many Cage compositions, wrote in her memoir Chance and Circumstance, “It is so strange to me that John [Cage] never revealed the slightest curiosity about the physiological effects of sound on the human body/mind.” It seems that Cage’s adherents follow in a similar vein.

Brown’s observation, natural to her role as a dancer who was challenged to remain poised amidst sudden loud and strange amplified electronic noises, addresses an elephant in the room: do chance operations inherently exclude empathy or aesthetic choices? It depends on the parameters of the work, but in general, I think they do not. Even in collage-style works that are arranged through chance procedures, there are aesthetic choices or non-choices made by the artist in the selection of the materials to be used. For Williams Mix, Cage used sounds recorded by the team of Bebe and Louis Baron, therefore distancing himself from the collecting of the materials. It is not indicated whether Cage listened in advance to these tapes to select which sections to use in his collage. For their Extended derivative work, all of the sounds were recorded and processed by Dafeldecker and Tricoli themselves. The content and quality of these sounds may be assumed to reflect the two men’s likes, dislikes, and aesthetic values.

Cage was known to follow Zen teachings that promote the development of equanimity. Cage’s compositions, and those of his acolytes, challenge us to accept pleasure and pain with even receptivity. What seems unacknowledged is that when sounds provoke irritation, disorientation, or anxiety, this can be happening on a deep physiological level, not just an intellectual or mental level. Our bodies are built to prefer certain sensations over others.

The challenge of Cage’s composition ethos is not just to our aesthetic values, but to the resilience of our bodies and how we ride the emotional and physiological flows that arise in response to sensorial input. Maintaining serenity without shutting down our full range of sensation is an enormous challenge. When the listener’s full physical experience of the sound is unacknowledged by artists or audiences, an important component is obscured.


Asimina Chremos currently lives in Philadelphia and works with improvisational processes to create freeform works of dance and crochet. She is a former dance editor and writer for Time Out Chicago magazine.